The Quest for Cheap, Reliable Solar Energy

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The Quest for Cheap, Reliable Solar Energy

Over the years, fantastic predictions have been made about the future of solar power.  One analysis presented in the journal Energy and Environmental Science1 and popularized in a major Scientific American2 article said that solar, along with wind and water power, could supply the entirety of mankind’s global energy demands by 2030.

However, as the Trends editors have shown in previous issues, the hurdles to solar energy make such dreams patently absurd.  For one thing, the cost and time it would take to build the infrastructure needed to meet that 2030 goal would dwarf other public works projects, such as our interstate road system.

Furthermore, the energy consumed in that effort would be vast.  The pollution caused by related mining and manufacturing would be huge — and certainly not “green.”  Some experts argue that once the system is built, the energy could be recouped.  However, that points out another unknown — how much it will actually cost to operate, maintain, and replace the solar equipment.  Without knowing this component, any promise of payback is mere speculation.

Another large hurdle we would face if we hope to rely predominantly on solar and wind energy would be the need to replace the present-day electrical grid with a “smart grid.”  Because solar and wind power is uneven, the grid would need the ability to react to that unsteady flow.  It would need to store and redistribute power so that the proper level of capacity would always be available across the country.  This is something our existing distribution system simply can’t do.

If we believe we can be freed from dependence on a foreign resource by generating solar power to charge a nation of electric cars, we need to think again.  The fact is, we would merely be trading one resource reliance for another.  To take just one example, the best existing battery technology for storing surplus electricity and powering electric cars is lithium-ion batteries, and most of the good lithium deposits in the world are in Bolivia and Chile.

In short, for solar energy to work, it comes down to economics.  As we’ve noted previously, civilian solar power has been around since at least the 1970s, and yet, by 2008, it represented less than one one-hundredth of one percent of U.S. energy production.  Any normal product that had been around for that long and showed that little market penetration would have been discontinued long ago.  Needless to say, in free-market terms, solar energy has been a complete flop — and that’s despite generous subsidies...

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